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Memory, Perception, and Policy Making
Abstract  This chapter conceptualizes how historical memory influences the actor’s interpretation and understanding of the external world,
especially in a specific situation such as a crisis or conflict. A few frameworks are developed to conceptualize the function of historical memory
as the lens and motivational tool, and the conditions where historical
memory influences the decision-making process. This chapter also discusses research methods regarding perception and attitude, especially
about how to identify and measure the influences of historical memory
in actors’ perception.
Keywords  Historical memory · Perception · Policy making · Conflict
Humans have a limited capacity to organize and analyze data.1
Consequently, we must rely on simplifying mechanisms to process (code,
store, and recall) the massive amounts of information we encounter in
our daily lives. Frames are shortcuts that people use to help make sense of
complex information. Often, these frames are built on underlying structures derived from beliefs, values, and experiences. These differ across cultures and nationalities. In addition, frames often exist prior to conscious
decision-making and can affect subsequent decisions. Consequently, the
nature of how and when frames are formed, factions are separated not
only by differences in interests, beliefs, and values, but also in how they
© The Author(s) 2018
Z. Wang, Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict, Memory Politics
and Transitional Justice,
28 Z. Wang
perceive and understand the world, both at a conscious and subconscious
One way human beings make sense of new situations is by comparing
them to previous experiences stored in memory. The history of a people profoundly influences the perception they have of the world around
them, and historical memory often functions as important information processors. Historical memory influences actors’ interpretation and
understanding of the external world and a particular situation. This often
leads actors to endow practices with group purposes and to interpret the
world through frames defined in part by those purposes.
This chapter discusses how historical memory influences an actors’
interpretation and understanding of the external world, particularly during a conflict and the conditions where historical memory influences the
decision-making process. A few frameworks are introduced to conceptualize the function of historical memory as the lens and motivational tool.
This chapter also provides frameworks on how to conduct research to
identify the functions of historical memory in policy making.
Framing and Reframing
Collective memory is of special importance during a seemingly intractable conflict. According to Bar-Tal, the beliefs of collective memory fulfill
the epistemic function of illuminating the situation of conflict. He considers four important themes which collective memory influence the perception of the conflict and its management:2 (1) Collective memory can
justify the outbreak of the conflict and the course of its development;
(2) In intractable conflicts, a group’s beliefs of collective memory present
positive images of the group itself, as the group engages in intense selfjustification, self-glorification, and self-praise; (3) The beliefs of collective
memory delegitimize the opponent; (4) A group’s beliefs of collective
memory present its own group as being a victim of the opponent.
In the context of a conflict, we create frames to help us understand
why the conflict exists, what actions are important to the conflict, why
the parties act as they do, and how we should act in response. During
the evolution of a conflict, frames act as sieves through which information is gathered and analyzed, positions are determined (including priorities, means, and solutions), and action plans developed. Depending on
the context, framing may be used to conceptualize and interpret, or to
manipulate and convince.3
Historical memory as a lens
& Attitude
Fig. 3.1 Historical memory as a lens
As some scholars suggest, frames are built upon an underlying structure of beliefs, values, and experiences.4 Strong collective memories of
past conflicts are often important sources of frames. In addition, frames
often exist prior to conscious processing of information for decisionmaking and affect subsequent individual decisions. Disputants often
construct frames that differ in significant ways. Thus, disputants are separated not only by differences in interests, beliefs, and values, but also in
how they perceive and understand the world, both at a conscious and
preconscious level.5
Although history and memory are, rarely by themselves, the direct
causes of conflict, they provide the “lens” by which we view and bring
into focus our world; through this lens, differences are refracted, and
conflict ensues.6 The lens of historical memory helps both the masses
and the elites interpret the present situation and decide on future policies.7 The existing literature suggests that each party to a conflict or
dispute has its own unique understanding of the sources of conflict and
relevance of various issues. This includes the opportunities and risks associated with different choices.8 Each of these factors can be considered a
set of lenses through which the various parties view the conflict and form
the basis of their actions.
Figure 3.1 provides an intellectual map that conceptualizes the function of historical memory as a lens and its relationship with perception
and behavior. Each party to a conflict or dispute has their own perception and understanding of the sources of conflict, the relevance of various issues, their priorities, and the opportunities and risks involved with
different choices.9 This assemblage of factors can be considered as a set
of lenses, or conceptual frames, through which the various parties view
the conflict. Differing conceptual frames held by the parties involved in a
dispute form the basis on which they act.
30 Z. Wang
Historical memory can affect the way actors come to understand and
interpret the outside world and incoming information. Socially shared
images of the past allow a group to foster social cohesion, to develop and
defend social identification, and to justify current attitudes and needs.
During conflicts, leaders often try to evoke memories of past traumas
to spur people to action and make the group more cohesive. Historical
enmity thus acts much like an amplifier in an electrical circuit.10
The lens of historical memory influences both the masses and the
elites to interpret the present and make decisions on policy. For example, in Zheng Wang’ book Never Forget National Humiliation, the
author provides detailed accounts on how a deep historical sense of
victimization by outside powers, a long-held suspicion of foreign conspiracies against China, and the powerful governmental education and
propaganda campaigns on historical humiliation have worked together to
construct a special Chinese “culture of insecurity.” Thus, this culture of
insecurity has become the frame by which the Chinese interpret presentday events, and influences their reactions and demands to rectify perceived humiliation.11 Interpretations of history often force unprepared
and caught-off-guard governments to deal with internal and external
challenges to conventional views of memory and history, especially when
dealing with sensitive issues of national pride and international honor.12
Conflict resolution can be profoundly difficult in these situations.
Scholars have noted that collective memory and history often become
tools for elites and states to mobilize mass support. For instance, political
elites often use past traumas for implementing their goals; this is especially true in moments of crisis when people tend to more fervently cling
to the past. If a group’s identity is challenged, undermined, or even shattered, memories are often used and manipulated to reaffirm group bonds
and reinforce a sense of self and community.13 Jerzy Jedlicki analyzes two
ways “a vivid historical memory fans the flame of current animosities:”
First, it does so through the process of sanctification of some historical
events that transforms their dates, places, actors and relics into powerful
symbols, and the stories into unifying myths. Secondly, a memory of collective wrongs and losses suffered in the past from another nation, but
also an awareness, however dim, of one’s own nation’s responsibility for
wrongs done to other peoples, burden the present conflict with strong
resentments and make it appear to be either a historical repetition, or a
historical redress.14
The link between historical memory and the rise of nationalism is
essential to note because myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of
ethnic heritage are what gives nationalism its power. Perhaps even more
importantly, it is the way by which these idealizations of the past can be
rediscovered and reinterpreted by modern nationalist intellectual elite.15
An important indicator that identity violence may be forthcoming is
nationalist (or religious) myths justifying hostility against another group.
These myths are evident in national media, school curricula, official government documents and speeches, popular literature, and history. The
more hostile the myths or ideology, the more likely violence is to occur.16
There is also a significant link between historical memory and political
legitimacy. This link is best evidenced by the attempt of nationalist movements to create a master commemorative narrative that emphasizes a
common past and ensures a common destiny.17 Political leaders often use
historical memory to bolster their own legitimacy, promote their own
interests, encourage a nationalistic spirit, and mobilize mass support. The
politics of memory has proven to be central in the transition to democracy throughout the world.18 Perceptions of the past are essential in both
de-legitimating previous regimes and in grounding new claims to political legitimacy. By shaping collective memory, governments can uphold
their own legitimacy and find reasons to topple that of others.
Collective memory is of special importance during a seemingly irresolvable conflict. It influences people’s approaches to conflict and its
management in several ways. Firstly, it can justify the outbreak of the conflict and the course of its development. If you believe you have been historically wronged, you are more likely to engage in conflict. Secondly, in
intractable conflicts, a group’s beliefs of collective memory present positive images of the group itself, as it engages in intense self-justification,­
self-glorification, and self-praise. A history of victimization and endurance
can help build a group’s self-esteem as the group members begin to see
themselves as the progeny of a longline of survivors. Thirdly, the beliefs
of collective memory delegitimize the opponent. A group’s memory of
previous wrongs will keep the members from seeing the conflict through
their opponents’ eyes. Finally, a group’s beliefs of collective memory present its own group as being a victim of the opponent.19 These four influences create an inextricable web which often keeps groups engaged in
Framing and reframing are also vital to the conflict management and
reconciliation process. Analyzing the frames people use in a given conflict
32 Z. Wang
provides fresh insight and better understanding of the conflict dynamics and development of said conflict. More importantly, with the help of
reframing, stakeholders may find new ways to reach agreements.20 Thus,
the processes of reconciliation, negotiation, or joint problem solving
can be seen as the processes of reframing. Reframing may pave ways for
resolving, or at least better managing, a dispute.
An important reason why many deep-rooted conflicts find it challenging to realize reconciliation is because reframing a group’s collective
memories is so difficult. Scholars ask whether it is possible to reframe the
past for the purpose of promoting reconciliation and peace.21 As discussed before, a group’s collective memory has been in formation for a
long time. This memory has been shaped and influenced by many factors
including the state’s manipulation, social narratives, school education,
and popular culture. It’s probably easy for people outside to say that a
group of people should “move forward” and to forget the past grievance
for the purpose of reconciliation and maximizing the current common
interests, however, for the group themselves, historical memory of past
trauma is actually the key elements of constructing their national identity. A new narrative or national story of the past conflicts is first not easy
to be created, and then the change of “stories” and “narratives” would
almost mean to re-create a nation and would take a very long time. It is
not realistic to expect a brand-new master narrative or national story to
be created out of nothing.
Analogy is a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another (the
target). Historical memories provide individuals a reservoir of shared
symbols and analogies that may be enlisted to define contesting social
groups.22 These analogies often help reconcile conflicting incoming
information in ways consistent with the expectations of the analogy.
Historical memory can be easily activated when an out-group’s mischievous behavior causes suffering of the in-group. Leaders do not merely
justify policies using historical analogies, but also an essential component
of the decision-making process. In Analogies at War, Foong Yuen Khong
shows historical analogies are also used as an essential basis for information processing in political decision-making. Historical analogy can infer
that if two or more events have one similarity, they may have another,
“AX:BX:AY:BY–because event A resembles event B in having characteristic X, and A also has characteristic Y; it is inferred that B also has
­characteristic Y.”23
Analogy plays a significant role in problem solving, as well as decisionmaking, perception, memory, creativity, emotion, explanation, and communication. These historical analogies often form the basis for foreign
policy and political propaganda. Scholars have also discussed how US
policy makers routinely resort to historical analogies. Khong’s research
examines how American policy makers, from World War I to Operation
Desert Storm, continually emphasize “lessons of history” when debating
whether or not to go to war.24 There have also been comparisons made
between the Iraq War and Vietnam War,25 and an increased discussion
about the different responses America had to the 9–11 attack as opposed
to Pearl Harbor.26
Political elites also use historical analogies to persuade and influence
opinions. For example, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos,
in January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Abe said that rising tensions
between China and Japan today were similar to the competition between
Germany and Britain before World War I. According to Abe, a “similar
situation” existed in both cases because strong trade ties were not sufficient to overcome strategic rivalry.27 Obviously, he wanted his audience
to view modern China as being as dangerous as Germany in 1914.
A number of factors affect the strength of historical analogies, including the relevance of the known similarities, the amount and variety of the
examples in the analogy, and the number of shared characteristics among
the things being compared. For example, today’s China and Japan
indeed share some similarities to Britain and Germany before 1914, such
as close economic ties and security rivalries. At the same time, the size,
amount, and level of the economic ties between the two groups of states
during the two periods of time have significant differences. Furthermore,
the basic structure of the world has changed from one of imperialism to
one of globalization. Also, although modern Japan undoubtedly shares
many similarities with pre-war Japan, the country’s political institutions,
decision-making structures, society, and foreign relations have all experienced dramatic and fundamental changes. Thus, many so-called similarities are actually incomparable and irrelevant.
It is therefore irresponsible for scholars to spread various historical
analogies and “lessons of history,” and it is dangerous for political leaders
to use historical analogies to mobilize support. These ready-to-use analogies could make people believe everything is doomed, and therefore not
make strong efforts to uphold peace and to create new opportunities for
34 Z. Wang
As Tidwell suggests, “Without a good sense of history, no conflict can
be understood in a meaningful way for resolution. The importance of
history cannot be over-emphasized.”28 In many deep-rooted conflicts,
past problems become the ghosts for current realities and frequently
affect current relationship. Historically, poor relationships and suspicions between two sides initially impede constructive discussion.29 When
an emergency happens and when decision makers are under pressure to
make decisions, especially when an incident has caused one side’s sufferings (e.g., casualties and injuries), history and memory (through historical analogies and cognitive processing) are easily activated and play the
greatest role during the selection and rejection of policy options. They
exert their impact by influencing the assessments and evaluations policy
makers must make in order to choose between alternative options.
Three Causal Pathways of Beliefs
In their book “Ideas and Foreign Policy: An Analytical Framework,”
Robert Keohane, Judith Goldstein, and their colleagues examine the role
of ideas in foreign policy formation and present a method for analyzing how ideas explain political outcomes. They define “ideas” as “beliefs
held by individuals” or “cognitive content of collective identity.”30 As
discussed before, collective historical memory often solidifies the ideas a
group holds about its members and its adversaries.
Keohane and Goldstein identify three “causal pathways” in which
ideas, including those constituting historical memory, can influence policy behavior: when ideas serve as road maps, as special equilibrium, and
when ideas become institutionalized.31 Because individuals often have
incomplete information when evaluating policy, the ideas and belief systems that individuals hold, therefore, become important elements in the
explanation of policy choices. When faced with the uncertainty of policy
making, beliefs and ideas can function as road maps in three ways. An
actor’s interpretation or judgment of the scenario may be influenced by
his or her ideas, limiting the options available to them by excluding variables or rejecting information that could lead to an alternative course of
action. Here, ideas are limiting policy choices by filtering out alternatives. Ethical or moral justifications for action are also strongly influenced
by one’s beliefs and ideas. And, finally, behavior is guided by ideas and
beliefs stipulating casual patterns.
Second, ideas can contribute to outcomes in the absence of a unique
equilibrium. Ideas may serve as focal points that define cooperative solutions or act as coalitional glue to facilitate the cohesion of particular
groups. When political actors must choose between outcomes with no
“objective” criteria on which to base choices, ideas often focus expectations and strategies. Political elites may settle on a course of action on
the basis of shared cultural, normative, religious, ethnic, or causal beliefs
while other policies may be ignored. Ideas or identity can act as causal
factors in influencing policy behavior by coordinating cooperation and
group cohesion; however, they can also contribute to outcomes by the
opposite way—causing conflict and disorder.
Third, once ideas or beliefs have become institutionalized, they constrain public policy.32 The term institutionalization is used here to
denote the process of embedding particular values and norms within
an organization, social system, or society. Once these ideas are institutionalized, they can have lasting impact for generations to come. When
institutions intervene, the impact of ideas may be prolonged for decades
or even generations. In this sense, ideas can have an impact even when
people no longer genuinely believe in them as a principled or causal
statement. Furthermore, once a policy choice leads to the creation of
reinforcing organizational and normative structures, the policy idea can
impact the incentives of political entrepreneurs long after the interests of
its initial proponents have changed.33
In summary, ideas influence policy when the principled or causal
beliefs they embody provide road maps that increase actors’ clarity about
goals or ends–means relationships, when they affect outcomes of strategic situations in which there is no unique equilibrium, and when they
become embedded in political institutions. In order to find out whether
the ideas of historical memory act as road maps and/or focal points in a
group’s policy and practice behavior, specific questions concerning the
three aspects need to be answered.
These questions are outlined in Table (3.1). The first group of questions is for the purpose of identifying whether the particular beliefs of
historical memory play the role of road maps for response and behavior
in conflict and uncertain situations. Based on the conceptual framework
presented before, ideas and beliefs serve as road maps in three ways:
(1) influencing actors’ interpretation and judgment regarding the situations; (2) providing compelling ethical or moral motivations for actions;
Does historical memory act as coalitional glue to facilitate the cohesion of a group?
Have the beliefs of historical memory become embedded in political or social
institutions and become institutionalized?
Does historical memory cause any conflict or constitute any difficulties to the settlement
and resolution of the conflict?
Does historical memory stipulate causal patterns to guide behavior under conditions of
Have political leaders used historical memory to mobilize mass support and/or justify
hostility against another group? Does historical memory provide ethical or moral
motivations for actions?
Does historical memory influence actors’ interpretation and judgment, such as
functioning as a filter that excludes other interpretations or limiting policy options for
Research Questions
Motivation &
Processing &
Road maps
Causal Pathways
Table 3.1 Three causal pathways of collective memories
36 Z. Wang
(3) stipulating causal patterns to guide behavior under conditions of
The second group of questions examines how the beliefs of historical
memory serve as focal points or glue that coordinate cooperation and
group cohesion, or whether they contribute to outcomes by the opposite way of causing conflict and disorder. The third set of questions is
about whether or not historical memory has become embedded in political institutions and has been institutionalized.
This analytical framework can not only be used as an integral whole
for more systematic research, but can also be divided into several components to focus on particular aspects of historical memory issues. For
example, one could use this framework to study how the Polish collective memories about the Katyn Forest Massacre in 1941 influenced the
way some current Polish interpret the recent plane tragedy in April 2010.
Or, a researcher could use these questions to design a research on how
the memory of imperialist bullying in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries influenced the Chinese understanding about the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 8, 1999. The potential
research questions could include the following: (1) Did the content of
historical memory provide sources of frames, lens, and analogy to interpret the specific event? (2) Did the beliefs of historical memory function as filters that limit choices by excluding other variables and contrary
interpretations that might suggest other choices? (3) Did the beliefs of
historical memory play any role in limiting, curtailing, and creating policy options for response?
This chapter examines the role of historical memory in perception,
interpretation, and decision-making processes. Also included in this
analytic framework is a discussion of how memories of past injustices
functioned as filters, limiting choices by excluding other interpretations and options. The content of a collective identity can be cognitive. Functioning as a collective identity or collective belief, historical
memory affects the way individual actors understand the world. The
cognitive content of historical memory provides a source of frames,
lens, and analogy to interpret the outside world. In deep-rooted conflicts, past relationships and problems, perception gaps, and psychological barriers have become obstacles for reconciliation or even normal
38 Z. Wang
1. Khong Yuen Foong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu,
and the Veitnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2. Daniel Bar-Tal, Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological Foundations
and Dynamics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013),
3. Linda L. Putnam and Majia Holmer, “Framing, Reframing, and Issue
Development,” in Communication and Negotiation, ed. Linda L. Putnam
and Michael E. Roloff (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992),
4. Kaufman, Elliott, and Shumeli, “Frames, Framing, and Reframing.”
5. Ibid.
6. Kevin Avruch, Culture and Conflict Resolution (Washington, DC: United
States Institute of Peace Press, 1998).
7. Andrei S. Markovits and Simon Reich, The German Predicament (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1997), 9.
8. Sanda Kaufman, Michael Elliot, and Deborah Shmueli, “Frames, Framing,
and Reframing,” (September 2003), http://www.beyondintractability.
org/essay/framing (accessed May 13, 2017).
9. Kaufman, Elliott and Shmueli, “Frames, Framing, and Reframing.”
10. Vamik D. Volkan, Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism (New
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997).
11. Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory
in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York, NY: Columbia
University Press, 2012).
12. Gerrit W. Gong, ed., Memory and History in East and Southeast Asia
(Washington, DC: The CSIS Press, 2001).
13. Duncan Bell, Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the
Relations Between Past and Present, ed. Duncan Bell (Palgrave Macmillan,
2006), 6.
14. Jerzy Jedlicki, “Historical Memory As a Source of Conflicts in Eastern
Europe,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 32 (1999): 226.
15. Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of a Nation (Oxford University
Press, 1999), 9.
16. Stuart J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).
17. Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and Making of Israeli
National Tradition (Chicago, PA: The University of Chicago Press,
18. Bell, Memory, Trauma and World Politics, 20.
19. Daniel Bar-Tal, Share Beliefs in a Society: Social Psychological Analysis
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2000).
20. Ibid.
21. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri and Einat Lachover, “Reframing the Past as a
Cosmopolitan Memory: Obituaries in the Israeli Daily Haaretz,”
Communication Theory 22:1 (February 2012), 18.
22. Alan C. Tidwell, Conflict Resolved? A Critical Assessment of Conflict
Resolution (New York, NY: Continuum, 2001).
23. Khong, Analogies at War, 101.
24. Khong, Analogies at War, 101.
25. Jeffrey Record and W. Andrew Terrill, Iraq and Vietnam: Differences,
Similarities, and Insights (University Press of the Pacific, 2004).
26. David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the
Bush Administration and 9/11 (Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing
Inc, 2004).
27. A New Vision from a New Japan, World Economic Forum 2014 Annual
Meeting, Speech by Prime Minister Abe, Wednesday, January 22, 2014.
(accessed May 9, 2017).
28. Alan Tidwell, Conflict Resolved? A Critical Assessment of Conflict
Resolution (New York: Pinter, 1998), 119.
29. Michael Spangle and Myra Isenhart, Negotiation: Communication for
Diverse Settings, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003), 27.
30. Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, “Ideas and Foreign Policy: An
Analytical Framework,” in Ideas and Foreign Policy, ed. Judith Goldstein
and Robert O. Keohane (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 3–30.
31. Goldstein and Keohane, “Ideas and Foreign Policy,” 3–30.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
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